RED DEER, Alberta, Canada (ABC4) – Speaking to ABC4.com on the phone after coaching his junior league team’s practice on Monday, former NHL player Steve Konowalchuk admits he doesn’t sound like the typical Utahn.
He calls his accent, “a hybrid,” blending parts of East Coast and Canadian pronunciation and sounds into a voice that is distinctly different than most who grew up in Salt Lake City.
It makes sense, after all – Konowalchuk has spent most of his life around hockey players from larger hockey hotbeds outside of the state. In fact, at 15, he moved to Saskatchewan to play for the Prince Albert Midget Raiders, with hopes of making it to the sport’s highest level.
The competition in Utah and availability of ice rinks just weren’t good enough at the time, he explains.
“It was a little bit difficult with only, I believe, three rinks,” Konowalchuk recalls of his childhood in the Salt Lake area. “My parents would travel around between rinks with me and my brother going from rink to rink to try to get as much ice time as possible. So it was difficult.”
Konowalchuk remembers his father, a hockey-loving Canadian who moved to Utah for work, pushing his kids onto the ice after Salt Lake Golden Eagles games, just to get as much precious time on the frozen surface as possible.
However, to make it all the way to the NHL, which he did as the first person born and raised in Utah to play in the big leagues, Konowalchuk had to take his game elsewhere.
In total, only five Utahns have made it to the National Hockey League, and of that group, only three have significant ties to the state, including Konowalchuk. The other two, Trevor Lewis and Daniel Brickley, also left Utah as teenagers to refine their game elsewhere.
According to Konowalchuk, the reason why Utah continues to be a step behind in hockey is there isn’t a consistent top-level presence in the state. While the Los Angeles Kings and Vegas Golden Knights are slated to play an exhibition game at Vivint Arena on Thursday, the Utah Grizzlies, who play in the minor league ECHL, don’t drum up the same kind of fanfare and interest from the community as an NHL team in the market would.
Places like Colorado, Arizona, and now the Seattle area, where the NHL’s newest team, the Kraken, will play, are leaps and bounds ahead of Utah in producing elite hockey talent as a result of having the best in the world play in the area, Konowalchuk says
Hosting the Winter Games in 2002, however, certainly did boost the sport’s presence in Utah a bit, thanks to an increase in ice rinks around the state.
“I think the Olympics helped, hockey’s definitely better in Utah,” Konowalchuk says. “And there are more rinks than there were when I was there, but it’s not to the level of where NHL teams are.”
Still, regardless of the caliber of hockey in the Beehive State, Konowalchuk still holds his birthplace and childhood playground close to his heart. While he was making a name in the NHL, he would drop by and visit his mother, who remained in Salt Lake City for years, when he had the chance.
Memories of playing with his friends on the state all-star team and making postgame trips to Chuck-A-Rama are also a part of Konowalchuk’s Utah memories.
“It was just such a great time of my life with my brother and some of the guys we played with,” Konowalchuk remembers. “Going to tournaments every holiday was just awesome from Alaska to Colorado to California, with an awesome big group, a special group of people that I have a lot of memories with.”
With the NHL set to make an appearance in Salt Lake City on Thursday, here’s a look at the five players with Utah ties who have made it to skate with the best in the world:
A trailblazer as the first player born and raised in Utah to make it to the NHL, Konowalchuk also holds this group’s record for most games played in the big leagues with 790. He was drafted by the Washington Capitals in 1991 and became an established part of the lineup around 1994. A well-respected member of the Capitals, his teammates elected him to wear the captain’s C in 2002. The Capitals traded Konowalchuk to the Colorado Avalanche in 2003 and he retired in 2006 after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. Following his playing career, Konowalchuk entered the coaching ranks and spent time as an assistant with the Avalanche, Anaheim Ducks, and New York Rangers, in addition to several seasons as the head coach of the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League. He’s now the head coach of the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels.
Entering his 14th season in the NHL, Lewis stands as the only Utahn on an active NHL roster after signing a one-year deal with the Calgary Flames. Lewis is also the only Utahn to be a first-round draft pick having been chosen 17th overall by the Los Angeles Kings in 2006. Lewis played for L.A. for 12 seasons where he won two Stanley Cups – he’s the only Utahn with his name on the trophy as a player – and was honored as the team’s ‘Unsung Hero’ several times. He also spent a season with the Winnipeg Jets. Lewis has a chance to surpass Konowalchuk’s mark of 790 games played in the NHL this season, trailing by 60 when the new campaign begins on Oct. 16.
While Bachman was born in Salt Lake City, the goaltender who bounced back and forth between the NHL and the minor league AHL for the Dallas Stars, Edmonton Oilers, and Vancouver Canucks probably feels stronger ties to Colorado. He grew up in the Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch, and played for the Colorado Junior Avalanche youth program and later at Colorado College before being drafted by Dallas in 2006. He played 49 games in the NHL with a record of 20-18-2 with two shutouts, a goals-against-average of 2.97 and a save percentage of .903.
Aside from calling Salt Lake City his birthplace, Olsen doesn’t have a strong connection to Utah. He was born in the Beehive State while his father, Darryl, was playing for the Salt Lake Golden Eagles of the minor league International Hockey League. The father and son both hold the distinction of playing in the NHL, although Darryl only suited up for the Calgary Flames for a single game in 1991. Dylan enjoyed a bit more success than his dad in the NHL, playing in 124 regular-season games, however, in a similar figure to his old man, played in just a single NHL playoff game. He last played in the NHL in 2016 and has been playing in the minor leagues and leagues overseas since.
A product of a hockey family – his uncle Andy, was a star for the Utah Grizzlies near the end of his career – Brickley has had multiple injuries to start his professional career, which has dampened what were high hopes for a successful tenure in the pros. The Brickley family and the Lewis family were close while the 26-year-old was growing up, which probably affected his decision to sign with the L.A. Kings and join Lewis as a teammate after a decorated collegiate career at Minnesota State. Brickley has played in five NHL games, all with the Kings, and notched his first point, an assist, in his debut in 2018. He is currently a member of the Chicago Wolves in the minor-league American Hockey League.